The mission of mission statements

Mission statements have a bad rep. Many companies create long, flowery, vague mission statements, which appear at the start of the employee handbook but don’t seem to have any bearing on the company’s day to day operations or long-term decision-making process. People begin to wonder: What’s the point of even having one?

Here’s the point: A well-written mission statement provides a barometer for judging opportunities and ideas. It should help you to make decisions, but more importantly, it should help every single person in your organization make decisions.

Imagine that you’ve hired a manager, who has been sent to represent your business at a national conference. They are empowered to extend and accept certain offers for your company. Someone comes to them with a very interesting opportunity; it could be a big break for the company, but it’s a bit outside of the normal services or products that you’ve provided up to this point, meaning it could also be a risk and an expense. Should your manager turn the opportunity down as a distraction that would dilute the company’s viability, or, should they explore it further as the potential next big thing to take your company to the next level?

These types of decisions are crucial and challenging. It’s the perfect time to use the mission statement to help make the decision. Does this opportunity fit with your mission statement? If not, the answer is an automatic no, saving time, money and human capital on exploring what will turn out to be a dead-end or distraction.

Of course, the first question is not even is your mission statement concrete enough to be helpful, it’s can your representative remember the mission statement? If it’s long and flowery and vague, they probably won’t even know it in this crucial decision-making moment.

The ingredients of a strong mission statement

  • Ideally, a mission statement is one sentence long.
  • It describes the reason an organization or program exists.
  • It is useful to help guide decisions about priorities, actions, and responsibilities.
  • It is clear, memorable and concise. Some might also add “inspiring” to the list of descriptors.

Many mission statements succumb to overuse of words in general, but especially jargon.

Is your mission statement longer than 20 words? Can you get it below 15? Below 10?  Design it to communicate what you do in such a way that people can remember it and communicate this to others. If you can’t get a mission statement below 15 words, consider also creating a mission tagline which people can more easily remember.

Examples of great mission statements

“Adobe revolutionizes how the world engages with ideas and information.”

Adobe is a company that makes software aimed at professional designers and digital creators. Their mission statement isn’t just “Adobe makes software.” — it addresses the question, why do we make software? When we have 10 ideas for new types of software, how would we choose which one is the best fit for us? Through this mission statement, we know what impact Adobe wants to make through its software, and that the service is a means to making an impact, not the impact itself.

“To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.”

This is Nike’s mission statement. They want to help people worldwide to embrace their inner athlete. This mission doesn’t just speak to their products, it also makes programs and scholarships that are aimed at athletes.

Nike also supports many charity organizations, and must certainly be approached by non-profits on a daily basis who want to tap into Nike’s deep pockets. Nike can’t support all of them, but their mission statement is a great starting point to evaluate which non-profits are most in line with their mission and the values they want to project to the wider world.

“Spreading Ideas.”

This is the mission statement for TED, an organization that produces informational videos, podcasts, radio programs and more. They are not just about capturing information and making it available, they are about making information catchy, desirable, shareable. Their mission statement is incredibly simple, yet effective. It clearly communicates what they are setting out to do and enables them to see if potential opportunities are in line with their mission. If someone approached TED about a lecture series, they could ask themselves if it would, in fact, spread ideas, and if so, how effective it would be in that goal compared to other opportunities.

Examples of ineffective mission statements

“To help make every brand more inspiring, and the world more intelligent.”

You would probably never guess that this is the mission of Avery, a company whose product is stick-on labels. It’s not that this isn’t a good goal, it’s that a good mission statement should have some relationship to reality. How could stick on labels make the world more intelligent? If an opportunity arises for Avery, or they are considering a new product, would looking at their mission statement help them make a decision about what the best choice for their brand is? We fear the answer is no.

“Our mission is to operate the best specialty retail business in America, regardless of the product we sell. To say that our mission exists independent of the product we sell is to demean the importance and the distinction of being booksellers.”

This is the mission statement of Barnes & Noble. The first issue with it is that it’s on the long side, but it doesn’t stop there. It also contradicts itself! Regardless of the product it sells, it doesn’t want to demean the importance of being booksellers?  Sounds like Barnes & Noble would like to have its cake and eat it too. Do you think this would help a manager to make a decision, or just confuse them?

Refining a mission statement

As we’ve learned, a good mission statement is clear, concise and consistent. Most mission statements start as a mission paragraph or even a mission page. Here’s an example of a real-world first draft mission statement that we helped to refine:

“NurtureMy.Biz will provide personalized educational and “data crunching” services so that the information that small business owners need is available to them at their fingertips, in the exact moment that they need it. Whether that’s learning how to write a solid proposal or knowing who they need to call today to move them closer to closing their next big account, we will provide tools and resources to make this as simple as possible. Our guiding light will be to make it as fun, easy to understand and engaging as possible. Everything we offer should feel empowering, easily actionable, exciting and never overwhelming.”

This isn’t a bad start. It gives a clear guideline for how to decide if something is in line with the business’ goals and a reason for existing, evaluating new features or opportunities. But it’s too long for anyone to remember without digging out their employee handbook. Still, realistically, most business owners will create a mission statement about this long or longer. If the mission truly has to be this long, then we need a “mission tagline” version that anyone can remember.

Make your goal to boil down your mission page into a mission paragraph. Then, work on boiling that paragraph down into one clear statement or tagline that anyone could remember.

Here’s the revision we came up with for the above business:

“To make first time or small business owners weep with joy when they realize that they have the tools and opportunities to make their boldest dreams come true.”

This version is more about the emotional experience but also incorporates how empowering the product is meant to be, and who it is supposed to empower. You can see how it relates to the first mission statement, but it’s gone from four lines to one.

When you are presented with opportunities or decisions, how would you evaluate which one makes the most sense for your business?

What guides you?

Make that your mission statement.


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